El Cumbanchero is a Latin standard penned by the man I think of as the Cole Porter of Puerto Rican music: Rafael Hernandez. Among his many hits (Lamento Borincano, Preciosa, Mi Provisa, Mi Patria Tiembla, Siciliana), El Cumbanchero was one of his least favorites. Its popularity, however, could not be denied. When Hernandez was invited to a White House ceremony in the early 60s to honor the then governor of Puerto Rico Luis Munoz Marin, President Kennedy amiably greeted him as "Mr. Cumbanchero."
Of all the versions of El Cumbanchero I've come across, the award for the best belongs to my favorite Latin singer of all time: Ismael Rivera (whom I'll be doing a post of in the future). Rivera had the energy, the presence, and, of course, the voice to successfully bring El Cumbanchero from the older (though no less incredible) musings of Tito Puente and Bebo Valdes into the modern sound of 60s and 70s Latin music. Pay attention to the tongue work-out about 0:29 into the song. Rivera is backed up by Alegre timbalero Kako and his Orquesta, an incredible band that certainly deserves much of the credit for this furious arrangement.
Ismael Rivera con Kako y su Orquesta - El Cumbanchero
Of course, if it's a Latin standard, you can bet that Tito Puente has done an incredible version of it. Check out this excellent video of El Cumbanchero as done by The Mambo King and his orquesta. About 2 minutes in, you're reminded of what makes this man one of the greatest.
Tito Puente backs up Celia Cruz in a medley covering Babalu, Siboney, and, finally, El Cumbanchero. You can catch El Cumbanchero at about 3 minutes in. It's not the best version, and I actually think the babalu treatment is a lot better, but it's still great to hear Celia's part in the tradition.
Celia Cruz - Medley: Babalu, Siboney, El Cumbanchero
Xavier Cugat rocks the upbeat big band uproach.
Xavier Cugat & His Orchestra - El Cumbanchero
And Bebo Valdes does it even better!
Bebo Valdes - El Cumbanchero
For a more modern take, check out a version by pianist Ruben Gonzalez of Buena Vista Social Club fame. A little more subdued in energy, but talent abounds. Having recently started playing the trumpet, I can only marvel at the grit of Manuel Mirabal's trumpet playing (check him out at 25 seconds in).
Ruben Gonzalez - El Cumbanchero
And there's always the kitschy good life/lounge version, on Hammond organ no less!
Klaus Wunderlich - El Cumbanchero
And finally, for your entertainment: ....what?
"I wanna do it faster than this."